Children from an early-learning program sang "The Wheels on the Bus" in Braddock on Thursday at a celebration of expanded free transit service for 11 communities in and around the Mon Valley.
Just a few months earlier, it had appeared as though the wheels on the bus would fall off.
Heritage WorkLink, a service that helped thousands of mostly lower-income residents get to their jobs, was near the end of the line because Congress eliminated the program that funded it.
But the service was not only saved but expanded thanks to the state Legislature's enactment of Act 89, the law that is steering new funding into Pennsylvania's transportation system.
The renamed Heritage Community Transportation system serves East Pittsburgh, Liberty, McKeesport, Monroeville, North Versailles, Pitcairn, Port Vue, Turtle Creek, White Oak and Wilmerding. A McKeesport-to-Monroeville route operates 12 round trips on weekdays; an East Pittsburgh-to-Monroeville route makes 19 weekday round trips. The buses run on a more limited schedule on Saturdays and holidays.
The intent is to get residents to jobs or to connections with the Port Authority system. Anyone 18 or older is eligible, but riders must register to use the buses.
"These are people whom I admire tremendously. They're doing whatever they have to do to get to work and support their families," said Paula McWilliams, president and CEO of Heritage Community Initiatives. "We're privileged to serve them."
The service has more than 3,000 registered riders and has provided more than 820,000 rides over the past decade. An economic analysis concluded that 350 to 994 jobs would have been lost had the service been discontinued.
"Quite simply, this service would have shut down without Act 89," state Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch said in a message read at Thursday's event.
Ms. McWilliams said ridership declined last year when it appeared the service would run out of money. With last week's launch of expanded service, the agency is hoping to recapture that and add more riders. Three hundred new registrations have come in since the debut.
"This is huge to the Mon Valley," said Chris Sandvig, regional policy director for the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group. "This is an area that has seen so much transit leave. We were at risk of losing the last lifeline. To have lost this as well would have been devastating.
"This is helping people lift themselves up and become part of the world," he said.
Another free bus service that was threatened by the congressional funding cut, RideACTA, which operates in the area of Robinson Town Centre, also is slated to get Act 89 funding.
The service operates on demand, taking people from the parking lot at IKEA to about 150 places of employment within 1.5 miles of the stop. It had to reduce service last year when its continued operation was in doubt, also causing a decline in ridership, said Lynn Manion, executive director of the Airport Corridor Transportation Association.
RideACTA was providing 80,000 rides per year before the decline, and Ms. Manion said state funding will allow restoration of the service that was cut. An exact date hasn't been set, but the expansion will occur by July 1, she said.
For information or to register for Heritage Community Transportation, visit www.heritageserves.org or call 412-351-2200 during business hours. More information about RideACTA is available at www.rideacta.org.
Jon Schmitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.